Monday, March 27, 2006

Questions for Christians, Part III

In the past, I have quite consciously resolved in The Philosophical Midwife not to take up issues that are narrowly political. I have no plan to change that, but before I pass over to the topic of this post, I think it helpful to make reference to recent events in Iraq. Iraqi Shias, in retaliation for Sunni crimes committed against them, have begun to hunt, capture, torture and kill Sunnis in Baghdad and elsewhere. Details of such events can be found here. Here's a bit from the start:

Mohannad al-Azawi had just finished sprinkling food in his bird cages at his pet shop in south Baghdad, when three carloads of gunmen pulled up. Mohannad al-Azawi, 27, a Sunni, was dragged from his pet shop on March 12. His mutilated body was found the next day. In front of a crowd, he was grabbed by his shirt and driven off. Mr. Azawi was among the few Sunni Arabs on the block, and, according to witnesses, when a Shiite friend tried to intervene, a gunman stuck a pistol to his head and said, "You want us to blow your brains out, too?" Mr. Azawi's body was found the next morning at a sewage treatment plant. A slight man who raised nightingales, he had been hogtied, drilled with power tools and shot.

Imagine what this young man must have suffered in his last days. The holes were surely drilled into him before he was killed, for the intent was to make him suffer. But of course he would not have sat still for such a thing. He must have been strapped down. He must have seen the drill near his head. He must have felt it begin to bite into his skull. His screams would have filled the room. His tears would have streamed down his face, and mixed with the blood that coursed down. He likely had no idea, as most of us have no idea, that life could become so terrible.

Other Sunnis have had their fingers and toes sawed off before their execution. I do not say amputated. I say sawed off. Each hand and foot must have been strapped hard to the edge of a table. Each man must in terror have seen the saw brought near. Each must have felt the first bite of the blade. A finger or toe would fall off and yet the terror would continue. They would scream until they could scream no more.

Each man forced to endure such a thing no doubt called out to God as he was tortured. But God did not come. God forsake them all. When I read of such events, I find it impossible to believe that God exists. Surely a perfectly good, all-powerful God would have intervened and saved Mr. Azawi from his travail!

I do not mean to insinuate that all Sunnis are innocent. Some have perpetrated crimes equal to the worst done by the Shias. Moreover, instances of such things are found throughout human history. Doubtless millions have undergone deaths as bad as Mr. Azawi's.

(Before I consider how the Christian might respond, let me take a moment to dismiss a certain common Christian view of the afterlife. It is that all those who do not accept Christ as Messiah will, after death, spend an eternity in torment. If this is true, Mr. Azawi passed from a few days of torment at the hands of men to an eternity of torment at the hands of God. If this is true, he passed from merely human torturers to the Divine Torturer. (How much more perfect and thus how much more painful would be torture meted out by God!) If this is true, he passed from the hands of human beings whose thirst for blood can perhaps be quenched with time to the One whose blood-thirst burns eternally. This of course is absurd. Good men do not torture others. How then can a God who surpasses all in goodness Himself torture His creatures? Was Mr. Azawi an evil man? Likely not, at least no more evil than many who pass for good. Did he deserve torture at the hands of men? Of course not. How much less, then, does he deserve torture at the hands of God! The belief that Mr. Azawi now suffers in hell is moral perversion. Moreover, it is blasphemy. One should never attribute such wickedness to God. What of those who say that Scripture tells us that all who die outside Christ suffer eternally and that as a consequence we must believe that this is so? I say this to them: Either Scripture, properly interpreted, says no such thing, or, if it does, it is in this regard surely false. Shame on you if you accept as true a text which asserts such absurdities!)

How might the Christian respond to my charge that a omnipotent and omnibenevolent God, if He existed, would not have forsaken Mr. Azawi? I know of three types of response.

The Value of Free Will

Most Christians (indeed I would suspect very nearly all) hold that the exercise of free will (i) exceeds in value the evil that men do and that (ii) no world of great value is devoid of free beings. (To simply asssert i is not enough for the Christian. The Christian God, since all-good, does not merely create a world that is on balance good. Rather He creates a world that is exceeded by no other in value.) On this response, though what was suffered by Mr. Azawi was a great evil, it and all other evils are more than balanced by a certain good, viz. free will, whose existence entails the very real possibility of such evils.

Let us grant that free will is a very great good, indeed a good so great that it far exceeds the evil that men do. Moreover let us grant that the best of all worlds must contain free beings. But now let us ask this: might God have intervened in Mr. Azawi's torture and still left his torturers, and the rest of us, free? The answer is an obvious Yes. God might have had Mr. Azawi come down with a mild cold that would have kept him from work for a few days and thus saved his life. If God had done this, would anyone be any less free? I would not. You would not. Mr. Azawi would not. (No one is any less free simply because they stay home with a cold.) Mr. Azawi's torturers would not. They would simply have had one less target, and that does not render them one iota less free.

I conclude that nothing about the importance of free will could have justified God's decision to forsake Mr. Azawi.

The Christian might respond that if God were to intervene in Mr. Azawi's travail, He would have to likewise intervene in the lives of all who suffer greatly. God, since perfect, is nothing if not consistent in His actions. But this, the Christian might say, would entail that the exercise of free will is a kind of sham. We would be shielded from its misuse and thus, in a sense, it would not be we who by our free acts make our world as it is. Rather it would be God who by his continual oversight and continual correction insures that the world goes as He wishes.

My response is two-part. (i) The Christian holds that God does intervene in the world at times. He does at times help those who need help. The Bible tells of many such events. But He does not always do so. Thus He seems inconsistent in His actions. Might it be that he intervenes when those in danger deserve help? This is indefensible. Some who are in danger of death, some who near a time of great pain, are but children. Do they not deserve help? What could they have possibly done to justify God's decision to forsake them? (ii) I simply do not see why God's intervention in times of the most terrible pain would render the exercise of free will a sham. Such times are relatively rare and thus even if God were to intervene in them, the exercise of our freedom would be mostly untouched by Him. Moreover, might He not intervene in a way undetectable by us? Might His touch not be very light, so light that it would seem that He had not touched the world at all?

Greater Future Goods

Might God's failure to end Mr. Azawi's travail be justified by some greater good that would (i) thus be brought about, and (ii) could not have been brought about in any other way? (It is not sufficient to merely describe some good or goods that Mr. Azawi's torture brought about, for if these goods could have been brought about in a way that involved any less evil, God's decision to forsake Mr. Azawi could not possibly be justified. God, since omnibenevolent, brings about the goods that He does in a way that involves the least evil.) If this were so, i.e. if there we some great good thereby brought about that could not have been brought about in any other way, we must ask for whom this good would be achieved. There are two possible responses. ('God' is not one of them. There is no good that God lacks, no good that God needs to reach complete goodness. God's goodness is sufficient unto itself.) (i) The goods would accrue to Mr. Azawi. Mr. Azawi died soon after his torture, and thus if some good accrued to him, it must have done so after his death. But what can this good be? What might Mr. Azawi's torture have gained him in the next life that he could not possibly have otherwise had? (a) Moral virtue? I simply do not believe that moral virtue can be achieved only after a time of great pain. Neither, I think, do you. We wish to instill moral virtue in our children. Must we then torture them to achieve this? Of course not. (b) Strength of character? (This seems related to a. Moral virtue requires strength of character. But they are not identical. One can be strong in vice.) If this were so, strength of character could be achieved in no way but through a travail of the sort Mr. Azawi underwent. But many who have not undergone such a thing are yet strong in character. My mother is an example, as was my grandmother. (c) Sympathy for the pain of others? I do not see why Mr. Azawi must suffer to gain that; and even if I am wrong, I do not see why he must have suffered so much to gain this capacity for sympathy. Might he not have suffered less and yet achieved the same sympathy? Surely. (d) Communion with God? Could God not have granted such a thing to Mr. Azawi even if He had never been tortured? God can let those that He wishes into His presence. To claim that one must be tortured to be given this grace seems at once both bizarre and repugnant.

But if his torture could not have gained Mr. Azawi moral virtue, strength of character, sympathy with others or communion with God, I am at a loss to say how it might have been good for him.

If the Christian demurs here, we might make a change of example. Some young children, indeed some neonates, have been tortured to death. Did this make possible some advance in moral virtue for them? No, it did not. Neonates, no matter what happens to them, are not ready to begin to develop virtue. Did they thereby grow in strength of character? Of course not. Ones so young as yet cannot begin to develop strength of character. Did they gain a power of sympathy? Of course not. Such a thing lies beyond the ability of one so young. Was their torture the only way to make possible communion with God? What a wicked God that would be! "Child, depart from my presence, and do not return until by the hands of men your body is ruined!" Can we suppose that God would say such a thing?

(ii) The good would accrue not to Mr. Azawi but to others. So, then, we can be used in just any way at all so as to achieve some good for others. We can be mere things, things to be used in the most terrible of ways so that others might benefit.

This is moral absurdity. For if we are mere things to be used however our Creator likes, so too are all others. But if all others are mere things too, why would God choose to harm us so as to benefit them? It makes no sense.

But if you yet think it possible that God would so use Mr. Azawi, do you think that He might so use an innocent child? Many children have undergone deaths as terrible as his. Did God use their death to benefit others? Would you let your child die in horrible pain so that some other might benefit? What a horrible parent you would be if you did!

Mr. Azawi Deserved It

This should come as no surprise to those with any knowledge of the Christian world-view. For the Christian, we are all and one sinners and thus we all and one fall short of the perfection of God. Some Christians hold that, as a consequence, we are all justly condemned to death and to torment. Only God's mercy, they say, a mercy by us completely unmerited, are we saved from such a fate.

I do not know how to respond other than to say that such a view as this is morally repugnant. Every human being has a certain dignity that cannot be abrogated by either god or man. (For me, part of the allure of the Church of Rome is its staunch defense of this view.) Torture abrogates this dignity.

So then, my charge that a truly omnipotent and omnibenevolent God would not have forsaken Mr. Azawi stands. But forsaken Mr. Azawi surely was. Thus there is no omnipotent and omnibenevolent God.

Of course the issues (issues collected under the head of 'The Problem of Evil') that I've raised are large. Much has been written about them and I've not done justice that body of work. One could plunge into it and spend one's whole life there. I do plan to return to these issues. But I have said why the case of Mr. Azawi presents what seems to me an impenetrable barrier to my conversion to Christianity.


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Randy Kirk said...

Hope this doesn't show up twice. The new blogspot has its issues.

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